Discussion paper

DP18715 Precolonial Elites and Colonial Redistribution of Political Power

Studies of colonialism often associate indirect colonial rule with continuity of the precolonial political order. These studies are largely silent, however, regarding how colonialism affected the distribution of power among precolonial domestic elites. We argue that colonial authorities, seeking to maximize economic extraction, will redistribute power toward less oppositional elites. We test our theory on the colonial occupation of Egypt in 1882, where British authorities encountered a domestic elite divided between the landed elite and the rural middle class. Using an original dataset on members of the Egyptian parliament and a difference-in-differences empirical strategy, we show that the colonial authorities shifted parliamentary representation toward the (congruent) landed elite and away from the (oppositional) rural middle class. This shift was greater in export-oriented regions, where the precolonial rural middle class was more powerful. Our results suggest that indirect rule entails previously unmeasured ruptures in the social-structural fabric of colonized societies.


Hartnett, A and M Saleh (2023), ‘DP18715 Precolonial Elites and Colonial Redistribution of Political Power‘, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 18715. CEPR Press, Paris & London. https://cepr.org/publications/dp18715